CORONAVIRUS

The first Spaniards to get the coronavirus vaccine: cross-border workers in Gibraltar

At least 270 people who work in the British Overseas Territory will be immunized in the next few days with the Pfizer dose, which has already been approved by the United Kingdom

José Antonio Villanueva, a cross-border worker in Gibraltar who will be one of the first Spaniards to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
José Antonio Villanueva, a cross-border worker in Gibraltar who will be one of the first Spaniards to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.PACO PUENTES / EL PAÍS

The thermometer, like the sun, has still not risen and José Antonio Villanueva is already out with his workmates on the border of Gibraltar, the British Overseas Territory in the south of the Iberian peninsula. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, chatting over the day’s first cup of coffee at 7am is the little that remains of Villanueva’s social life. The Spaniard works as a service technician at a seniors’ home in the Rock, as the territory is popularly known, and he is aware that letting his guard down could be fatal for the residents. Since he found out that he would be one of the first people to get vaccinated in Gibraltar (and also in Spain, where the first doses will be available later) he’s been eagerly awaiting the moment: “I will go to work more calmly.”

We are in contact with people who don’t go out. If they catch the coronavirus, it will be from someone from outside the center, and that is something that we have to be very aware of
Jose Antonio Villanueva, maintenance worker at senior residence in Gibraltar

Villanueva is part of the first group of care home workers and residents who will receive the first doses of the coronavirus vaccine developed by the US multinational Pfizer and German biotech company BioNTech, which was approved for distribution by the United Kingdom last week. The government of Gibraltar said last Wednesday that the British Overseas Territory will receive 35,000 doses – each person needs two doses to be immunized – which would begin to arrive “at the end” of the week. With these doses, the plan is to vaccinate people over the age of 80 as well as staff at Elderly Residential Services and the Care Agency, and subcontractors like Villanueva.

The Gibraltar government has not officially announced how many of its 33,718 residents will receive the first round of vaccines, but it is certain that some will go to the more than 9,200 Spaniards who cross the border to work in the Rock. “We are going to be vaccinated even before many Gibraltarians. But it is a wise policy,” says Antonio Sánchez, a Spanish cross-border worker at a center for minors, who will also be among the first to receive the vaccine.

Elderly Residential Services and the Care Agency directly employ 708 people, 273 of whom are Spanish, according to 2018 statistics from the Gibraltarian government, which do not include indirect employees or seniors of Spanish origin who are residents of the Rock. The Gibraltar administration has not explained exactly when the vaccination drive will begin, but sources from the government say this may not be revealed for “security” reasons.

Sánchez, however, knows that he will receive the vaccine. “I am one of the first. The subcontractor company that I work for has told us that it’s very likely that they will begin vaccinating us next week [the week starting December 7].” Like Villanueva, Sánchez is eager to get vaccinated. “I prefer to take the risk with a vaccine that may not be 100% effective in order to avoid as soon as possible the risk [of infection] and to be able to return to normal life,” he says. Sánchez cares for two minors with special needs at a center for children under state care and abused women. For him, acting responsibly has always been the priority. He explains: “I work with people who are more vulnerable, people who have to be protected. How are you going to explain the new [coronavirus] rules to a child with severe autism?”

We are going to be vaccinated even before many Gibraltarians
Antonio Sánchez, Spanish cross-border worker

José Antonio Villanueva knows well the compromises he has to make in his job. Every day, he enters dozens of rooms of senior residents to fix anything that needs repairing. “We are in contact with people who don’t go out. If they catch it [the coronavirus], it will be from someone from outside [the center] and that is something that we have to be very aware of,” he explains. The need to protect vulnerable people from Covid-19 is of utmost priority in Gibraltar, which has recorded 1,048 infections since the beginning of the pandemic and now has 57 active cases. Authorities in the British Overseas Territory launched a mass testing campaign with more than 95,700 tests conducted and only five Covid-19-related deaths have so far been recorded. But no one believes that the two PCR tests that are done weekly on care home workers like Villanueva are enough to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.

Both Villanueva and Sánchez say the news of the vaccination drive has been well received among their colleagues, most of whom are Spanish. Villanueva says that most of his workmates either support the vaccine or have some doubts, while Sánchez explains that at his job “some are deniers, like in the rest of society, but generally they are waiting for the vaccine like a godsend.” Sánchez’s wife also has her doubts: “My wife is a little more apprehensive, but not me. I understand that there could be human errors, but I am sure that they have put in all their effort to make sure they don’t happen.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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